Every night, Bert. Every night, down to the river with ya little ‘barrow. Careful, Bert, careful with ya broken fingers. If y’upset the cart, if it poddles over and the wee’uns tumble onta cobbles, if the common folk see me ‘midnight littles’, then ooh. Then ooh, Bert. I might put you on the roof and let the cold take ya. Will I not, Bert? Will I might tell mistress Hopps who’s ferretin’ away her used flannels instead? Might I’ll just kick your bollocks clean away. An agony o’ choices, Bert.

I took one. He don’ know I took one. I went with the barrow to the river. Didn’t count up this many years on me old boneframe by skirtin’ orders. Bumped down the cobbles, blanket over it in the barrow, usual. Wriggling little blanket, muffled little movements, usual. Got to the river nice and careful, but stopped. Couldn’t do it. It looked too normal. Bit a’ facial trouble, one of them curves in the spine, but it were healthy. Covered it back up, over the bridge and kept on. Wrapped it in me coat, buried it in wet leaves. Came home, put the barrow back.

It’s not easy, Bert. I know ya, know yer mind. And it’s not, swear by the spit in me heart. Not as ‘ard as it used to be, granted, we’ve got ourselves a mechanism to it now, a procedure. But that don’t make it ever easy. Still, let all that fall on me, eh? You’ve lived so long, old Bert, don’t take on yer master’s troubles an all. Just focus on yer wee trundles to the river, and I’ll take on the Lord when the bill needs payin’. Now wrap up warm and sleep, eh? Poor sod. Lost yer coat…

After all ‘ad taken to bed, I took up the shivering parcel from the leaves, wet and cold in me arms. It were spluttering but breathin’. Smuggled it home, laid it out in front of the fire on a sheet o’ used flannels and fed it a few spoons o’ rabbit water from the pot. Weren’t sure which of its mouths was for the feedin’ so I gave a few drops to each. It wrestled with the chill through the night, but I stayed up with it, gun on me lap, both barrels trained at the door. But no one came, leaving the night and the fire to just me and it. An old man with withered hands, and a wee baby. Chilled and in pain, but alive.

Summit’s different, Bert. Ye can feel it, can’t yer? Summit good in the wind. Walked along the battlements as the sun peeked up, ruddy marvellous. Cool breeze blowin’ sweet air from the fields. Plenty o’ ravens overhead, the ones that flap round Kate’s tower morning n’ night, an’ they were singin’. Singin’, Bert! Didn’t know the words, summit in latin; anyroad, a good mornin’ noise. Speakin’ of me good lady, pop along up n’ prep ‘er for the birthin’ tonight, eh Bert? P’raps a double serve of hormone paste and a belly rub. Then take a load off yer feet, eh? Lookin’ dirt-tired. Yes, Bert, got a good feelin’ fer tonight.

Fingers hurt as I rubbed a double serve o’ paste onto Mistress Kate’s belly. She smiled at me and said she must’ve been very good to be getting’ double paste. I just kept my head down and rubbed her belly, swollen, quiverin’ and moaning slightly, usual. Be a good birthin’ tonight, she said, smilin’ away. Locked the tower behind me and returned to me new babe. It were sleeping in its flannels, the stew bones I left all eaten away. I couldn’t sleep for fear of folk stumblin’ in. Looked at the little thing, with its little hands, bunched into wee fists against the cold. Who’d ‘barrow you away, I thought.

It’s not easy, Bert. Perfection’s in me blood. It’s what’s expected, demanded even. The common folk will no’ accept an imperfection in their king. Look at wee George, the way ‘e fits in the crook o’ the arm, ‘is hair, all fingers present, the face of a futureborn ruler, true and true. Worth all the little ‘barrow trips to get ‘im, eh? Poor Kate, nightly she goes for it, blames ‘erself for the spoiled ‘uns. Just the blood, I tell ‘er. Makes it not easy, but there’s perfection in there, just takes time. And paste. Can’t help the weak, if they were strong like George, they’d make it out the river, eh? Stands to reason. Still, good feelin’ tonight. Bed wee George down, Bert, and join me in the tower. Listen to them ravens singin’!

Looked at the sleeping prince, lyin’ in linens and cloth worth more’n me whole house. Looked at his correct number o’ limbs and one mouth. Not like the poor wee thing I took ‘ome. Not at all. But when I looked in me broken baby’s eyes, I saw a warmth. I look at wee George, and ‘is eyes are black. Scares me sometimes. Futureking stock, master says. Not all spoilin’ is on the outside, I can’t ‘elp but think. But only time will tell on that.

Attaway, Kate, push on! She’s a good fine lass, eh Bert? A lass o’ the people. And the people want another wee kiddie, eh? A full family in the castle, a beautiful picture of a whole family. Push on, Kate! ‘ee, them ravens be givin’ it full-throat tonight. Sing and sing and sing! Makes yer laugh, eh Bert? Push on! Push on, eh?! Eh, Kate? Bert? Ha ha! Ha hee hee hooooooooo HUUUUUUUUUU

She gave birth to a giant toe. Master were disappointed, but there’s always tomorrow. Trundled it off in the ‘barrow and plopped it in the river. It floated a little way, then sank. Got back to the castle an’ Kate’s belly ‘ad already begun to swell up again. She smiled, tryin’ not to show ‘er shame. Went home. I’m tired and old, but I sat up late, with me own babe in me arms, wipin’ its face with a used flannel. Til they get it right, they’ll keep on, but when I look at the wee’un I held tight, wrong back and terrible face, I whisper to it, you’re the best of ’em kid, so I’ll keep yer. There ought to be a best of them.


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